The 2018 Angels Will Live or Die by Their Starting Rotation

The Los Angeles Angels have been one of the rare active teams in this MLB offseason, arguably improving their club more than any other team in the process. The Angels surprisingly won the Shohei Ohtani sweepstakes, re-signed Justin Upton to man left field, and acquired both Ian Kinsler and Zack Cozart, who will both fill majors holes from the 2017 team. FanGraphs projected standings have the 2018 Angels at 88 wins and taking the second American League Wild Card spot.

The strength of the 2018 Angels will almost certainly be their position player group, which is headed by the best player in baseball in Mike Trout. Unlike recent years, Trout has an extremely strong position player crop surrounding him, thanks to standouts like Upton and Andrelton Simmons. FanGraphs projects the Angels for the fourth-highest offensive WAR (oWAR) at 27.4, which would only be bested by the Houston Astros, Chicago Cubs, and Los Angeles Dodgers.

While the offense ultimately looks like a strong unit, there are plenty of questions surrounding the Angels pitching staff, which projects as something like an average unit right now. More specifically, there are tons of questions surrounding the Angels starting pitchers, who have been injured at staggering rates the past few seasons. In case you have forgotten, here’s a recap of the oft-injured Angels starters of years past.

Tyler Skaggs, Andrew Heaney, and Nick Tropeano have all undergone Tommy John surgery. Garrett Richards and J.C. Ramirez have both had partial tears in the ulnar collateral ligaments (UCL) of their throwing arms, with both opting for vigorous rehab instead of undergoing surgery. Alex Meyer and Nate Smith, both potential rotation pieces in the near future, will miss all of 2018 due to shoulder surgery. Matt Shoemaker underwent surgery to repair nerve damage in his throwing arm late last season. This leaves Ohtani and Parker Bridwell as the only two starters who haven’t had serious arm problems in the recent past, although the former is already dealing with a small amount of damage in his UCL.

As a result, this constitutes putting a lot of faith in a group that just hasn’t managed to stay healthy. Pitchers who have been hurt tend to get hurt more often than those have stayed healthy, meaning guys like Richards or Skaggs, who have both endured multiple injuries, are at an even higher risk. This creates a very high amount of volatility, resulting in numerous scenarios for potential outcomes for the rotation.

On paper, a healthy Angels rotation could be an above-average, or even great, unit that would help the Angels win plenty of games. Ohtani and Richards both have frontline potential and have each showcased that ability at the highest levels. Skaggs, Heaney, and Shoemaker have all pitched like solid number-four starters at various times in their majors league careers. Tropeano, Ramirez, and Bridwell all represent solid depth pieces who can give you starts when needed. You can squint and see the potential for a starting rotation that does enough to let the position players carry the team.

FanGraphs agrees with this assessment, projecting the Angels rotation as the 15th-best projected unit in baseball. With six starters projected for 1+ fWAR, including Ohani’s 3.1 mark and Richards’ 2.6 mark, there’s enough quality and quantity in this collection to be a useful group. However, as mentioned above, the injury bug that has surrounded this starting rotation complicates matters.

With the Angels potentially having the most volatile rotation among all MLB contenders, this puts the club in a unique position. Pitchers by nature are far more volatile than position players, which places a lot of stress on the Angels rotation. In the event that all the Angels starters stay healthy, they could win 92-95 ballgames. In the event that the group continues getting hurt, the club could underperform and win 80-84 games.

The Angels as they currently stand are clearly a notch or two below the juggernauts of the American League: Houston, New York, and Cleveland. The Boston Red Sox likely have an edge on the Angels as well, meaning there is one lone playoff spot remaining for the club, that being the second Wild Card spot. Baseball always gives us surprises, which means the Angels could certainly leapfrog some of those teams, but that same randomness means other teams below the Angels could make a surge.

Potential help could come internally but it’s not likely, at least for 2018. While the Angels farm system has improved immensely, the main strength lies in their outfielder crop in the lower minors (Jo Adell, Jahmai Jones, Brandon Marsh), which means they can’t just dip into their prospect well for starting pitching. Ohtani will be a MLB starter from day one, so the only other pitching prospect who might see action in 2018 is 21-year-old Jaime Barria.

This has created speculation that the Angels need to find external options to create more certainty in the rotation. The free agent market is littered with options such as Yu Darvish or Lance Lynn, but given the Angels are currently at a payroll of roughly $171.5 million, it doesn’t appear a high-cost starter is in the budget. Things could change, especially given the number of pitchers available, but it appears the current group is the rotation the Angels will roll with.

The Angels have made lots of noise this offseason and will be one of the most entertaining teams to follow in 2018, given the club employs both Trout and Ohtani. What also adds to the entertainment is the uncertainty in the Angels rotation. With so much talent yet so much injury history, it creates a team with an abundance of possible outcomes. For the Angels, they hope luck is on their side in 2018 as they try to reach the postseason for the first time since 2014.

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